Korean American Books

Summaries and reviews of fiction and nonfiction books by Korean American authors,
books about Korean Americans and Korea, and Korean literature in English translation,
including some academic works and a sampling on the Korean War

Friday, September 19, 2008

Songs of the Kisaeng : Courtesan Poetry of the Last Korean Dynasty, by Constantine Contogenis

Gisaeng, sometimes called "skilled women," were courtesans in Korean history. During the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) kisaeng were prominent in society due to Confucian influence and a resulting large number of upper class bureaucrats, for whom gisaeng were a regular "perk." The reign of King Yunsangun (1494-1506) had 10,000 gisaeng in official residence in the capital. Recruited by "woman hunters," gisaeng were taken from peasant families or were daughters of existing gisaeng.

Misygynist Confucian practices required upper class women to remain in their homes until being delivered to her husband, their conduct and grooming dictated by strict rules of "right" behavior, their duty carefully prescribed exlusively toward the well being and continuity of the male family line. In comparison, gisaeng enjoyed freedom to develop emotionally and creatively despite the confines of their position and servitude, and were educated in writing, reading, music and art. This book therefore is an unusual treasure in Korean literature: the rarely heard voice of women in nearly 4,500 years of history. The collection is a bittersweet achievement. Gisaeng were among the lowliest class of people, yet a handful achieved a small measure of status according to the importance of to whom they were attached. This handful left a legacy of their pain through these poems. A gisaeng had many clients, and her experience of love was never avowed nor was it likely to be permanent. All the poems are lamentations of this aspect of love: from the moment she fell in love, her lover was bound to leave her. A sad testament to centures of an oppressive social structure in Korea, these poems continue to resonate with striking imagery, elegant rhythm and rhyme (in the original Korea, happily provided) and powerful emotion. A careful and nuanced translation.

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